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Where do successful chief marketing officers come from?

The road to becoming a successful chief marketing officer (CMO) is diverse and from differing educational and lines-of-business backgrounds.
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Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer on
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Gartner recently noted that the importance of chief marketing officers (CMOs) as key drivers of company growth. " As chief marketing officers take on more responsibility and ownership of CX, understanding the influence they have on company growth is critical to success in this rapidly evolving role," -- Gartner. In some cases, the CMO is also considered more as the 'chief customer officer". 

Before joining Salesforce, I served as both chief marketing officer (CMO) and chief customers officer (CCO) for Enterasys Networks. At that time, I worked with Jim MacLeod, director of digital experiences and creatives services. MacLeod is now vice president of marketing at EBSCO. MacLeod is one of the most creative and talented digital marketing professionals that I have ever worked with. The biggest challenge I faced as a newly appointed CMO was my education and work experience in marketing -- I had none. I studied electrical engineering in undergraduate and graduate university and grew my career mostly serving as the vice president of engineering and chief customer officer, responsible for global customer services before I was given the opportunity to run global marketing as CMO. MacLeod and the rest of the marketing team had to teach me the art and science of marketing. We accomplished a massive transformation of marketing during my three-year CMO tenure, including rebranding a $750M public company in less than 90 days. When we finished, MacLeod and our marketing team were awarded a Forrester Groundswell award for our successful and highly innovative business practices. 

MacLeod and I recently connected and talked about successful marketing leaders and their backgrounds. So, where do successful CMOs come from? What educational and work experiences are required to be a successful CMO? 

The brilliant president and chief marketing officer of Salesforce, Sarah Franklin, who was recently recognized by Forbes as the #6 most influential CMOs of 2022, started her career as a chemical engineer. "After 13 years with the San Francisco-based tech giant, Franklin became CMO in January 2021. Since then, the onetime chemical engineer has made innovation her goal -- and is using her marketing influence to drive it. She sees having run the company's platform as preparation for her CMO role because it provided deep insight into the breadth and depth of the business," Forbes. 

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The road to chief marketing officer (CMO) is diverse and multifaceted 

Jim MacLeod

The business world has experienced change at unprecedented scale and speed. The pandemic created decentralized and digital-only, digital-first business engagement models that lasted throughout 2020 and continue to shape our future today permanently. Customer expectations, buying behaviors, engagement preferences and expanded use of channels have redefined existing business models and created new ones. As the world transformed, so did marketing. The role of the CMO also evolved with a stronger emphasis on customer experience and brand loyalty. Welcome to the trusted experiences-led economy. Research found that 88% of customers say a company's experience is as important as its product or services -- up from 80% in 2020. Successful CMOs leaned into sales, customer service, e-commerce and human resources in order to design marketing capabilities as team support with a holistic success of all stakeholders as their guiding principles. 

The Chief Marketing Officer is one of the most unique positions within the C-suite. This is a position that historically has one of the shortest average tenures amongst its peers. One key contributor to this is the rate of change within marketing. The role of the CMO has also evolved in the recent years due to a more decentralized and digital-first approach to stakeholder engagements. Today chief marketing officers (CMOs) must lead the organization in connecting the enterprise, adapting and predicting market opportunity, and advancing purpose to drive the overall business strategy.

Marketing is a field that is in a constant state of evolution, and with that comes new skills that are needed to compete for tomorrow's audience. CMOs need to be able to accurately predict the next trends that will impact their business and get other stakeholders to align with these new initiatives. Because of the ever-shifting landscape, the path to becoming a Chief Marketing Officer is different for everyone in every company. Some of today's most innovative CMOs are marketing lifers, and some others "grew up" in disciplines outside of traditional marketing roles.

In hindsight, there is often a visible path from where someone started their career to their current position. But there is no clear path for an ever-changing position like Chief Marketing Officer. Over the past decade, there has been an onslaught of new marketing challenges and innovations. How many of tomorrow's leaders are taking on brand new challenges today? If you are CMO, please share your story with Jim and I on Twitter -- we would love to share your experiences with our marketing community. 

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Jim MacLeod, VP of Marketing, Digital Experience, EBSCO Information Services

This article was co-authored by Jim MacLeod, vice president of Marketing, Digital Experience for EBSCO Information Services. The beautiful infographic of 'The Road to CMO' was also created by MacLeod. For more than two decades, MacLeod has been finding the best way to get audiences to take the right action. Whether he's on the agency side or in-house, B2B or B2C, MacLeod finds creative ways to cut through the noise, focus on the most effective message, and get people to pay attention. MacLeod releases a weekly newsletter, Marketing Podcast Recap, where he presents the key points of marketing podcasts in an easy-to-consume infographic.

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